While I was watching Seymour Hersh on the Daily Show the other day the thought occured to me, "Is there the slightest reason why I should believe any of his ideological, paranoid, slightly hysterical rants?" The answer comes today via Max Boot at the L.A. Times: No way. Digging Into Seymour Hersh
Hersh doesn't make any bones about his bias. "Bush scares the hell out of me," he said. He told a group in Washington, "I'm a better American than 99% of the guys in the White House," who are "nuts" and "ideologues." In another speech he called Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft "demented." Hersh has also compared what happened at Abu Ghraib with Nazi Germany. (Were American MPs gassing inmates?) He has claimed that since 2001 a "secret unit" of the U.S. government "has been disappearing people just like the Brazilians and Argentinians did." And in his lectures he has spread the legend of how a U.S. Army platoon was supposedly ordered to execute 30 Iraqis guarding a granary.
Hersh hasn't printed the execution story, which suggests it may not meet even his relaxed reportorial standards, but what he does run is a confusing farrago of fact and fiction. His latest New Yorker article, "The Coming Wars," is a perfect example.
Based almost entirely on anonymous sources ("a Pentagon advisor" is not to be confused with "a Pentagon consultant"), it starts off with the allegation that the United States is planning strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. I hope so. But planning isn't the same thing as doing. Hersh's article offers no reason to think a war really is "coming."
In the rest of the piece, he writes about how Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is expanding the Pentagon's covert anti-terrorism activities and intelligence-gathering. True enough. According to Bart Gellman of the Washington Post (a real investigative ace), Rumsfeld has created a new spy unit to make up for the CIA's deficiencies. Gellman's Jan. 23 story has all sorts of specifics that the New Yorker piece lacks, including the unit's name (the Strategic Support Branch). Hersh's contribution is to spin this into something nefarious by including anonymous speculation that military operatives might sponsor foreign "execution squads" or even carry out "terrorist activities." Umm, guess we'll have to take your word for it, Sy.
But how good is Hersh's word? His record doesn't inspire confidence. In 1986 he published a book suggesting that the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner because they mistook it for a U.S. spy plane — a claim debunked by the opening of Soviet archives. In 1997 he published a book full of nasty allegations about John F. Kennedy that was widely panned. As part of that project he tried to peddle a documentary based on forged documents.
Few facts in Hersh's stories are checkable by an outsider, but, of those that are, a number turn out to be false. In November 2001, he claimed that 16 AC-130 gunships participated in a raid (a "near disaster") on Mullah Mohammed Omar's compound in Afghanistan. There were only nine AC-130s in the entire region, and they are never used more than one or two at a time. In a story in October 2001, he claimed that Predator drones cost $40 million; the actual price tag is $2.5 million. In the latest article, he says two Pentagon policy officials would be in the "chain of command" for covert operations; the actual chain of command runs from the secretary of Defense to military commanders in the field.
It seems to me that someone who is doing investigative journalism, a form of journalism which oftens precludes readers from being able to corroborate much of the information presented, has a greater responsibility placed upon them to be even handed than, for instance, someone working on an editorial page or as a columnist. As it stands how can anyone objectively decide where Hersh's grasp of facts end and where his paranoid delusions start? I don't think you can objectively decide. If you find that Seymour Hersh's journalism speaks to you or not, it says more about the mindset you had to begin with. You certainly didn't learn anything new. In many ways you end up less informed then when you started.
That's the very definition of a lousy journalist.